Carrettin will explore the context of chorales and concertos
By Peter Alexander
The Boulder Bach Festival (BBF) doesn’t just give concerts. They offer musical adventures.
Zachary Carrettin, who has been artistic director of the festival for the past three years, loves to explore the musical world around Bach: the ways he heard music performed, the musicians who influenced him, and those who were influenced in their turn by him. Which is pretty much everybody in Europe before and after Bach.
This weekend, Carrettin and the festival will explore one of the most basic elements of Bach’s musical world: the Lutheran chorale tunes that gave rise to, and were part of, so many other types of music. The program, “Concertos and Chorales Contextualized,” includes chorales, chorale preludes, motets, and—as the title suggests—two concertos.
The music is by a parade of great German Lutheran composers of the 17th and 18th centuries—not only J.S. Bach, but also Samuel Scheidt, Johann Hermann Schein, Dietrich Buxtehude, Michael Praetorius and Batholomaeus Gesius. If you don’t recognize those names, don’t be alarmed: they are all predecessors who paved the way for Bach, and their music is well worth hearing and getting to know.
The Lutheran chorales were the predecessors of all the hymns that are known and loved in the various Protestant denominations. They were not only used for congregational singing, they became the basis of elaborate pieces for organ, known as chorale preludes; they appeared in many diverse forms in cantatas and motets, such as were written by Bach and other composers of the Baroque period; and as familiar tunes and emotional anchors, they appear all through Bach’s settings of the passion story.
“The Lutheran chorale tradition that preceded Bach included so many imaginative and meaningful harmonic settings of the same chorale melody,” Carrettin says. “Composers such as Scheidt and Schein that you will hear on this program, really show their individuality in these simple 12- and 16-measure, four-voice chorales.
“The contrapuntal treatment has such potential for variety, and they’re also extraordinary pieces to hear on an emotional level, both from the message behind the text and also the message within the harmonic realization. These works are among the most simple and yet powerful pieces in our European music tradition.”
Illustrating the power of the chorale tunes, the concert opens with three different settings of a melody well known to Lutherans of Bach’s time, Durch Adams Fall is ganz verderbt. It will be performed first as an organ chorale prelude—an elaborated setting of the tune that often showed the organist’s skill as composer or improviser. Then the BBF instrumentalists will perform an arrangement of a chorale prelude by J.S. Bach, and singers will perform Schein’s four-voice setting of the tune.
Other manifestations of chorales will include eight-voice settings in Renaissance style by Scheidt, chorale settings by Praetorius, and two motets by J.S. Bach.
Nestled among some relatively unfamiliar works will be two very familiar ones: Bach’s Double Violin Concerto in D minor and Sixth Brandenburg Concerto. Acknowledging that these popular pieces would be a good audience draw, Carrettin says “if programming the Bach two-violin concerto brings people to a concert where they can hear a double chorus motet by Samuel Scheidt, then I’m certainly happy!”
But he has more in mind than adding popular pieces to an unfamiliar program. “The concertos are complex and at times dense in the writing, energetic, and highly contrapuntal. The affect is completely different than sacred choral music, and yet the journey through the sonorities and through the harmonic progressions has a lot of similarity with the chorales.
“In juxtaposing sacred and secular music, I’m hoping to whet the palette of all our listeners to really internalize what’s special about the harmony and the counterpoint in this music.”
One special feature of the concertos will be that Carrettin will introduce Boulder audiences to a new instrument he has revived from the Baroque period: the cello da spalla. Literally a “shoulder cello,” it is in effect a small cello fitted with a neck strap, like a guitar, and played more like a violin or viola. For the Brandenburg Concerto, he and co-soloist Renee Hemsing Patten will play two parts of the concerto on these unusual instruments.
Carrettin knew of this instrument from reading descriptions of Baroque music performances. “I commissioned this cello da spalla, made by the luthiers at Cavallo Violins in Omaha last spring, working from a variety of primary sources from the Baroque,” he says. “In the Brandenburg Concerto we will play Bach’s original viola da gamba parts. We will use baroque bows as they help to create a sound similar to the viola da gamba.”
These instruments are so rare that harpsichordist Christopher Holman remarked at one rehearsal that he was probably “the first keyboardist in the history of the United States to play with a cellist da spalla to his left and right!”
But whether talking about motets or the concertos, Carrettin’s discussion of the program always circles back to the chorales. Sung hymn-like in simple four parts, or as part of a larger work, they have deep meaning for him—and potentially for everyone in the audience, regardless of spiritual background.
“These works have a certain meaning to Lutherans, they have a certain meaning to all Protestants, they have a meaning to all Christians,” Carrettin says. “But they also have an incredible, powerful, transcendental poetic effect on those who are not believers in the Christian faith.
“I’m hoping that our audiences will embrace the music and the texts on their own terms.”
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Boulder Bach Festival
Zachary Carrettin, artistic director
“Concertos and Chorales Contextualized”
Boulder Bach Festival Chorus and Chamber Choir with soloists
Zachary Carrettin, conductor and violinist, with
Christopher Holman, organ and harpsichord
Keith Barnhart, Baroque guitar continuo
Lutheran chorale settings and works by J.S. Bach, Samuel Scheidt, Johann Hermann Schein, Dietrich Buxtehude, Michael Praetorius and Batholomaeus Gesius
7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 14
St. John’s Episcopal Church, 1350 Washington St., Denver
4 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 16
Boulder Adventist Church, 345 Mapleton Ave., Boulder